Harking Back: Chance encounter with our original inhabitants

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 10, 2016

One of the most interesting times spent while researching Lahore has been those spent with the gypsies living on the banks of the River Ravi. They have been there for thousands of years.

My view always has been that they are the oldest inhabitants of our city, and have a deep understanding of how “things evolved on the mounds” as they saw Lahore from the banks of the ever-changing course of the river. In a way they were also the very first to be persecuted by invaders, and each invasion saw them migrate thousands of mile away from “the troubles and bloodshed”. In this piece let me dwell on time spent with two set of gypsies while moving about Europe over the last six months, and then return to my friends on the banks of the Ravi, dried that it is now.

During a visit to the South of France in July 2015 I started a conversation at a café with what seemed like a scholar with huge dense spectacles and two books before him. He asked me where I was from. “I’m from Lahore”. The ‘scholar’ gave me a sharp look and in his Franco-English said: “That is the origin of the gypsies of the world. You should go to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and experience ‘Sara-la-Kali’. Now who and what is ‘Sara-la-Kali’ and what has she got to do with Lahore? Naturally the world ‘kali’ means black to me in Punjabi, but who is Sara? As the Camargue in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was just a few miles away I stopped there for an hour to look up this ‘Sara-la-Kali’.

To my surprise there were hundreds of gypsies gathered there to pay homage. It was a surreal experience to see so many of the people who left Punjab hundreds of years ago under surely what must have been trying circumstances and now lived all over the world, even in South America. They looked the same, wore similar clothes, had almost a Punjabi look, and spoke languages whose words I could make out as from my dear Punjabi.

First a word about Sara-la-Kali. Legend has it that, allegedly, in the year 42AD the mother of John the Apostle named Mary Salome, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus were sent by boat to sea and reached the shore of Gaul. They had with them a black Egyptian maid named Sara. The gypsies of the world claim she was one of them and was called a ‘gypsy’ because the French called all brown-skinned people Egyptians, hence the French word l’gypsie. The word is now universally used for the original migrants from Punjab, originally living along the banks of its rivers, as they do today. Over time the gypsies of Europe adopted Sara as their saint.

But then there are other gypsy saints too. Zeffirino the Pious, was in 1997 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II as the first Rom Gypsy Saint. He was ‘martyred’ in the fight against France in Spain. Gypsies have lived in Italy and Europe for over 700 years. In India they have several deities. Near Multan they have several ‘pirs’. Just to keep you informed they have one gypsy saint in South America too, and they reached that place when the Inquisition of a ‘Christianised’ Spain after killing thousands of them sent the remaining to their new colonies in South America as slaves.

The original Punjabi is at home no matter where he is, and most to this day retain their original language in one form or another. A journalist covering the 1982 Falklands War we enjoyed a meal at a Sialkoti’s fish and chip shop in the remote islands.

But back to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where I had a chat with a few Welsh gypsies, who invited me to their ‘home’ (caravans) in Wales. The gypsy asked me to come to ‘Y Gelli Gandryll’, which left me confused. I tried to decipher the word. ‘Gelli’ could mean ‘gali’ and ‘Gandryll’ could mean confusion or dirt. I was spot on, for this is what Hay-on-Wye is called in the Welsh language, which also means ‘dirty place’. Probably it was named so because gypsies lived there, and they have invariably been looked down upon. The Anglicised rulers renamed this beautiful place Hay-on-Wye, based on a nearby river by that name.

So last week I finally visited Hay-on-Wye and was reminded of my dear friend Saifullah Khalid, in my view the finest second-hand book collector of Lahore. The claim to fame of Hay-on-Wye is that it has the largest and finest second-hand book shops in the world. I looked up a reference to a gypsy at Hay-on-Wye and met William Jonas, who was most hospitable. I cannot thank him enough.

Let me share a few words these gypsies still use in their everyday conversation. I asked Jonas what the word ‘sword’ was called in their language. Prompt came the reply ‘vada chura’. Gosh, that was electrifying. Then I asked him a few more words, one after the other. Spoon is ‘chamch’, knife is ‘chura’, a plate is called ‘theli’, hair is called ‘bal’, the word ‘big’ is called ‘baro’, to ‘sit down’ is called ‘bich’, the word for ‘hunger’ is ‘bokh’. Gosh, this was sheer music to my ears. The word for ‘teeth’ was ‘dand’, and spoken in a Punjabi accent. They asked me if I would have a mug of tea, and he called out ‘doo chau’, and it was excellent ‘doodh pati’.

To me this is the original language of our land, a language that will never die even if, as is currently the case, Punjabi is deemed as not worth teaching to our children. Heritage and culture are definitely two words that, as Hitler famously allegedly said, ‘makes me reach for my gun’. Our feudal mindset, still on a colonial trail, follows a similar logic.

When I told the Welsh gypsies that our schools have two mediums of instruction, English and Urdu, both historically foreign. To Punjabis nothing could be more insulting. To the gypsies of Wales this came as shocking news and they looked at each other in shock.

So from the gypsies of Wales, France, South America and Italy that I met at the Camargue in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I am to return to the banks of the River Ravi. There I will look up my old friend Karoo (the doer) and his wife Muni and sister Ashraf Bibi. Karoo is a casual labourer, or so he claims, wherever he can find work, while all the women beg at street corners. William Jonas has sent them a scarf woven by his grandmother as a present to the eldest woman of the camp of Karoo. To me he presented a small statue of Sara-la-Kali.

I left the camping site proud that the original inhabitants of my land have not bent or let their language die out, as we are trying hard to in our ignorance. To the world they are gypsies, but to me they represent a story that we have never told our children. When hopefully I walk the banks of the Ravi next week with that handwoven shawl, I will be carrying a gift across the centuries. May they continue to walk the world as proudly as they have for centuries, unbent!



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